A memoir of my father, Noel Mathias, continued from here
My father graduated from St. Joseph’s College, Bangalore, while India, like the rest of the world, was in the throes of the Great Depression. He recommended to the British Minister, the head of the British Legation in Afghanistan, by his father’s friends, and worked in Kabul from 1940 to 1943 as a decoder for the encrypted messages that arrived from Delhi and London, highly confidential work, for there were seismic rumblings beneath the foundations of the Empire.
Later, a family friend, F. L. Silva, suggested an ideal profession–a Chartered Accountant—and so, using his share of his father’s legacy, he went to England to acquire a coveted British degree, eventually becoming Noel Mathias, F.C.A., Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants, England and Wales.
* * *
“This other Eden, demi-paradise, this precious stone set in the silver sea”
My father’s stories about his eight years in England were as familiar to us as the stories of our own childhood.It was a time of spectacular leisure, during which he spectacularly wasted time, in a way I myself cannot imagine myself doing. (He brought us up, you see, to never “waste” time!). He bought a Tube ticket in the morning, and spent the day, book in hand, circumnavigating the bowels of the ancient city, in the thrill of being there among those old famous names: Camden Town, Leicester Square, Clapham Common, Chancery Lane, St. Paul’s and South Kensington.
A single ticket in his pocket, he remained seated through movie after movie. Listened in awful fascination to murder trials at the Old Bailey. Bought tickets in “the gods” to watch the opera or Shakespeare in the Old Vic. Listened to Malcolm Sargent conduct Handel. Hung out listening to the orators at Hyde Park. Read the best writers of the time as their books rolled off the presses, Virginia Woolf, Andre Gide, Orwell, Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence and E. M. Foster, books he brought back to India with him, and which I read too—though, alas, too young to really appreciate them… Similarly, the classical music LPs he brought back from England were his joy and delight. He would sit in the evening listening peacefully to the Pastoral Symphony, the Jupiter Symphony, the Trout Quintet, Pathetique, or the Moonlight Sonata,
* * *
Through serendipitous grace (or are serendipity and grace the same thing?), my father boarded with a colourful Evangelical family, the Ponsfords, of whom he always spoke, nostalgically, affectionately!
Mrs. Ponsford, a rare, obliviously colour-blind woman in the blithely unpolitically correct world of the Forties and early Fifties, opened her heart and home to the flotsam washed up in London, then the heart of the heart of the world.
As a lodger, my father rubbed shoulders with them. He told us of braggart Arabs, who’d arrive at breakfast saying, “We’ll lick them; we’ll obliterate them; just you wait and see,” even as Jews were being smuggled past the British blockade into the Palestine of the British Mandate, and the State of Israel was inexorably born.
He told us of a fellow-lodger, a Nigerian who contracted tuberculosis, to whom Mrs. Ponsford gave the bedroom of her son Ian, a hero fighter Pilot in the R.A.F. (Never has so much been owed by so many to so few. This was their finest hour, my father often murmured.) Mrs. Ponsford’s race unconsciousness was far in advance of her family’s; Ian, back home, paced the drawing room, furiously muttering, “Mum has given my room to a tubercular ni**er!” Each morning, each evening, the said Nigerian yearning for his warm, green continent, rushed down to check the mail cascading through the golden slit in the front door. “Oh stop that,” Ian snarled. “Who do you know who can write? And, anyway, you can’t read.”
The Ponsfords took in a German Jewish war orphan, Anita, of mute, black rages, who each morning took her bowl of porridge, sweetened with precious rationed sugar and threw it at Ruth, the Ponsford’s warm-hearted daughter. “Ignore her, Ruth, ignore her,” Mrs. Ponsford said, citing a cruel but sure cure for tantrums, and so Ruth continued stolidly eating her own porridge, Anita’s porridge coursing down her cheeks.
* * *
How vivid were his memories! He told us of West Indians rushing onto the field after cricket matches, flinging their jubilant bats into the air, singing, “Crick-et lubb-er-ly cricket”–or so he said.
He enjoyed the English all-weather greeting, “Nice day, inn’t,” and the folk wisdom, “Cast not a clout, till May is out.” Getting drunk in pubs with his friends while singing Alouette, gentille Alouette, Alouette, je te plumerai, Je te plumerai la tête. And when he translated that, we were horrified.
He described sirens wailing as he banged on doors, badge and papers in hand, during his evening job as an air raid warden (part of his mandatory national service). Flashing his air-raid warden’s badge to get the recalcitrant to put off their lights, and adjust their blackout curtains so as to provide no unwitting direction to Hitler’s Luftwaffe.
My father often told us of sitting around the radio with the Ponsfords, and listening to Churchill’s famous broadcast in 4th June, 1940, We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender. And then, four hard years later: Listening to the Shema from newly liberated Belsen, amid reports of unimaginable atrocities.
There was war-time rationing during all my father’s eight years in England. While he turned over his coupons for butter, sugar, cheese, jam, bacon, meat, eggs, milk and tea, to Mrs. Ponsford who cooked meals for all the lodgers, he kept his confectionary coupon (12 oz. every 4 weeks, which he spent on chocolate which he consumed in one fell swoop in a glorious theobromine high. (When I went to England, thirty-two later, this was his main advice: “everywhere you go in England, you will see sweet shops. Look the other way.) Picking fruit in Europe with Hamish, Ian and Keith after the War. Going, as a lark, to an International Festival organised by the Communist Party of East Germany in East Berlin in the early Fifties, because it was cheap; he danced Eastern European folk dances; listened to concerts of classical music; and saluted, proclaiming Freuden, Freedom.
He volunteered in an Institute for Cold Research–luxurious room and board in return for submitting to research on what accelerated or abbreviated the common cold. Gamely, he went from a hot bath to a cold room, and sat in drafts, the researchers apparently unaware of Benjamin Franklin’s discovery that cold does not cause colds. The food was excellent, the Institute quiet, and so he submitted to something he must have winced at in his later health-conscious years!
* * *
I wish my father had absorbed evangelical Christianity from the Ponsfords, but, despite an intellectual interest and perhaps, even an intuitive understanding of their faith, he never succumbed to religious fervour, was perhaps too conventional and conservative to “get religion.”
I went to a Reformed church in my twenties, and tried to explain Sola Gratia, Sola Fides, Sola Scriptura, Solus Christus to my father, but he would have none of it. “Yes, yes, I am going to hell,” he said, addressing what I was puzzling over without words. “And listening to this is a foretaste of it!”
Indeed, he remained, in all important matters, conservative and conventional. For many years, he dated, but did not marry an Englishwoman, Marguerite, who took him to the opera, taught him to appreciate Beethoven, Bach and Handel, and introduced him to contemporary literature. He talked about her with the utmost fondness when my mother was not around.
“Oh Pa, why didn’t you marry her?” I used to exclaim.
“Oh, it would have been too embarrassing!” he said. “How would I have introduced her to my family?”
Dating English girls was fraught. He and Marguerite argued as they walked on the cliffs on a weekend outing, their voices raised. Though I cannot imagine my reserved father raising his voice in public, I guess he was then young. Royal Navy sailors hearing them, ran to her rescue. “Can I help you, Miss?” they asked. “Oh, the humiliation of it,” he said!
* * *
In his early thirties, he sneezed, he coughed, he blew his nose; he wanted to tear out his eyes. He thought he had tuberculosis. TB before his coveted Chartered Accountant qualification? No! So, every weekend, every evening, he sat in a park, breathing cool fresh air, so good for tubercular lungs. And sneezed and coughed the more.
In despair, he saw a doctor. It was not tuberculosis, it was hay fever, and his regimen of the pollen-filled air of Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, and the Whipsnade Zoo was the very worst thing he could have done.
In his thirties, he began to lose his hair. He went weekly to the barber, and tried the recommended salves, tonics, lotions, potions. Finally, the barber said bluntly, “Now, there’s only shoe polish.” He recalled arguing with Mrs Ponsford about inerrancy. “And you believe that Absalom was truly suspended by his hair?” my father asked. Mrs Ponsford snapped “Leave these matters to the scholars. Why do you say it could never happen? Of course, it could never happen to you.”
His Random Gleanings from England
“All those Indians in England, talking about socialism and communism, and the evils of money. They are now the pillars of the establishment. The more a young man trumpets his disdain for money, the more avaricious he will become in middle age.”
“Learn to see through jealous people. All my fellow Indians told me, ‘Mathias, you’ll never become a Chartered Accountant,’ when they watched me have so much fun. But I did not get discouraged. I did it. In the end.
“I saw my first lesbians in England.” “How could you tell?” I asked. “Oh, they wore loose baggy shirts, dressed like a man, walked like a man” (I am sure his rule-of-thumb has probably led me to many unwarranted assumptions!)
“I spent hours reading in the British Library. Whenever I saw a woman with thick glasses and lank oily hair,” he said (mildly misogynist like all his family were), “and peeked over her shoulder at the encyclopedia article she was reading, it was always about sex.” (I suspect this story was apocryphal.)
Another of his supposed true stories from London: A little old lady calls the police–“A man in the flat opposite is exposing himself. He is stark naked,” she says outraged. The Bobbies appear at her apartment. “Where is he, Ma’am. We don’t see anyone.” “Ah, but for that you need to stand on a table,” she explains.
* * *
He worked in the Accounts Department of India House in London until 1951 until he qualified as a Chartered Accountant, and then worked for Tubbs Clarke and Co., Chartered Accountants.
While he liked his boss who was fair-minded (and hired him after all!) he realized that he would always be held back by the petty racism of the English. When an audit was requested, he heard his boss preemptively explain, “One of our accountants is an Indian. Do you mind?” Some did not. Some did. “It’s always best to ask,” his boss said, apologetically.
My father’s epiphany: “Why be a second class citizen in someone else’s country when you can be a first class citizen in your own?”
He returned to India in 1952 as the Controller of Accounts and Manager of Data Processing at India’s largest company, the Tata Iron and Steel Company, in Jamshedpur, North India, where he worked until his first retirement at 60, after which he was the Financial Controller of an American-run Jesuit Business School, Xavier Labor Relations Institute, until he retired again at the age of 68 in 1984.
At his retirement party from TISCO, a subordinate giving a classic Indian flowery speech, said, “Sir, you were like Jesus Christ to us.” The Managing Director of the Tata Iron and Steel Company, Russi Modi called from the dais where their both sat, “Ah, if you had known him in his bachelor days, you would not have said that.” Gosh, what had he done?
Two years after returning to India, in 1954, aged 38, he married.
My mother said she was very impressed when she arrived in Jamshedpur–with his large house; his new car, a silver Fiat; the radio, as big as a large television; the new set of matching furniture.
Gradually, the truth came out. His car was 50 rupees a month, the furniture 15 rupees a month, the radio 5 rupees a month. But his bride had been impressed, and he was happy.
He learned to drive colourfully, or so he claimed, accidentally driving over the leg of a cow, resting in the middle of the road in bovine and trusting contentment, killing a dog, a goat. I was empathetically imaginative and shrieked in horror at these details, so perhaps they were embellished for my benefit.
When he drove in traffic, he became a different person. My first word, my parents claimed, was “Idjit.” Whenever he braked, my father said, “Idjit,” and so I soon learned to say it before him.
(For the memoir I’ve written so far, click here.)
Start Date—August 27th, 2012
Completion Date—August 31st, 2013
Word Count Goal-120,000
Words per day Goal—550 words a day
Progress (Aiming to write 6 days a week, excluding Sundays)
Day 41—22722 (172 words over)